Archive for February, 2017

critic’s pick: ralph towner, ‘my foolish heart’

There is a certain selflessness to the fact that Ralph Towner titled his first solo acoustic guitar album in 11 years “My Foolish Heart.” Of the recording’s 13 compositions, it is the only one he didn’t pen. But the tune’s history is rich, pervading every crevice of the stately beauty that defines this astonishing project as well as reinforcing an essential blueprint Towner has followed during his 44 year tenure with the European ECM label.

Composed by Victor Young and Ned Washington, “My Foolish Heart” is a proven jazz standard. Among the many pioneers to reshape it as a work of their own is piano great Bill Evans, whose vanguard trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian supplanted the work with a contemplative grace in 1961. Towner, who has regularly doubled as a pianist through the decades, has long admired Evans’ cunning and grace, enforcing a lyricism that has been a constant within his solo and ensemble projects, as well as his ongoing work with the long running band Oregon, without sounding imitative.

Towner’s take on “My Foolish Heart” is, frankly, just as evocative as Evans’ immortal rendering. Set to solo guitar, the precision and patience that sweep through the playing are more classically rooted. Yet the melodic warmth is always embraced. That same approach runs throughout the rest of the album, striking a balance of classical and jazz (evident especially during the 12 string guitar patterns of “Clarion Guitar,” which harken back to earlier ECM days) but still possessing the same myriad emotive casts – from playful to bittersweet to slightly ominous – that have long distinguished Towner’s playing.

On “Dolomiti Dance,” an Italian accented dance melody (Towner is a Washington native but has long resided in Rome) is repeated with modest variation to affirm a melody in sunny motion. “Blue as in Bley,” a requiem for pianist Paul Bley who died a month before the album’s recording session last winter in Switzerland, flips the premise for a darker and slightly more dissonant presentation that still adheres to the album’s light, exact and emotive cast.

The album ends by revisiting a 2003 Towner tune that led off Oregon’s “Beyond Words” album. Aptly titled “Rewind,” the original version was propelled largely by bass and reeds with guitar as a primarily rhythmic device until it was allowed to set sail at the halfway point. The version that closes “My Foolish Heart” is taken at a slightly slower pace. But without the additional instrumentation, the newer version sounds, if anything, more complete. It indulges in patient, unforced lyricism, allowing the performance, as is the case with all the music on “My Foolish Heart,” to beautifully reflect the tone and technique of a true guitar sage at the height of his understated power.

webb wilder rocks on

webb wilder.

Leave it to Webb Wilder to perfect the art of singing in the shower – or, at least, realizing when such an activity can be best optimized on a record.

At the close of his “Missississpi Moderne” album, Wilder’s newest sampler of typically varied roots rock delicacies, the veteran Nashville-by-way-of-Hattiesburg songster includes a version of the blues chestnut “Stones in My Passway” that was recorded in purposely primitive conditions – specifically, on a hand held recorder in the shower. Wilder never intended it for professional or public release, but the ultra lo-fi result proved a fitting way to open and close the album.

“It was pretty silly,” Wilder said of his “Stones” realization. “I will go to my grave reserving the right to be silly.

“Look, I am from Mississippi and if I grow up in an Afro-Celtic culture, I like to think I can do that sort of thing with as much soul as the next guy. But that was never meant to be released. It was kind of a ‘Ha ha, listen to this’ deal. I made that thing up in the shower in the mid 90s. I call it ‘hand held’ because I recorded it on a hand held cassette recorder. We wound up putting it on the multi-track. Tom Comet, our bass player, had the idea of putting just a little snippet of it at the beginning, so the album is bookended by it.”

Mixing rootsy drive and authority with a discreet level of giddiness has pretty much been the modus operandi for Wilder over the last three decades. Wilder the musician actually grew out of Wilder the hip ‘50s private eye character created for an indie short film. But ever since the release of his debut album, 1986’s “It Came From Nashville,” Wilder’s askew but devout roots music – which regularly incorporates rock, rockabilly, country, surf, swing, blues, soul and more – has remained vibrant.

“For a lot of us, music is our core,” Wilder said. “It’s our spirituality. To be a musician is a lifelong pursuit. Ahead of everything else in life, it’s a pretty nutty thing to do. So the only people who really do it are people who are unable to not do it. It’s like a calling. So I was born into music apparently.

“I was in the fourth grade when the Beatles spearheaded the British invasion. I think for a lot of us, it just meant the world. It meant, ‘This is the new world. This is how it is.’ The Beatles were in a category by themselves. On one album, they would have a Broadway show tune, a Chuck Berry song and something they wrote.

“By the time I started making records, that’s not what record companies wanted you to do. They wanted you to have a sound and that was what you were. Well, I’m sorry. I like rhythm and blues. I like country. I like blues. I like rock ‘n’ roll. I like British rock ‘n’ roll. I like American rock ‘n’ roll. I like rockabilly. I like cowboy songs. But I also can’t be a play-it-just-like-the-record duplicator of any of it, so all of it does come though my filter. Hopefully the ‘me’ element does unify it. The challenge comes from focusing the eclecticism.

Outside of a few brushes with major label exposure (as on the 1989 Island Records release “Hybrid Vigor,” whose title still nicely sums up the cross-genre joy of his music), Wilder has essentially been an indie artist, touring clubs and theatres with workmanlike regularity while maintaining a celebratory mood that has not dissipated through the years.

“I don’t know what it is that fuels my particular approach to performing, but I think my default setting is that of a performer as much as a writer or recording artist. Live is sort of my element so I like a level of spontaneity to be there.

“I get stage nerves and I have nervous energy, so, yeah, there’s some kind of it’s-really-who-you-are thing going on there. You really mean it and you’re pretty serious about it even if you’re being humorous or whatever. When it clicks, you’re lost in it and it’s more a feeling than thinking thing and you’re surfing six inches off the ground. Hopefully when you’re not, you’re up for the task enough to where no one notices.”

Webb Wilder and the Beatnecks perform at 9 p.m. Feb. 10 at Willie’s Locally Known, 286 Southland Dr. Admission: $10. Call 859-281-1116 or go to willieslocallyknown.com.

hector del curto: torchbearer of tango

hector del curto.

The chance to play with an artistic idol brought Hector del Curto to a crossroads early in his career.

The opportunity involved a performance with Astor Piazzolla, an artist who was far more than an inspiration for the young Argentine instrumentalist. Piazzolla was also the new generation pioneer in both the tango sounds that captivated de Curto’s homeland during his youth and the instrument that helped provide the music with its voice, the bandoneon.

The trouble was Piazzolla was considered a musical heretic by many Argentine traditionalists, including del Curto’s father, who viewed the composer’s modernization of tango, the aptly dubbed “nuevo tango,” as artistic blasphemy for its inclusion of jazz and classical accents.

So in essence, playing with his hero in 1989 (three years before Piazzolla’s death) meant del Curto had to distance himself from an established artistic practice of his culture and his family.

“At the time, with my father being a traditionalist, Piazzolla was simply not allowed,” said del Curto, who will perform two Piazzolla works on Friday with the Lexington Philharmonic. “Like many other people in Argentina, he did not accept the music of Astor Piazzolla. So when I performed with him, there were many mixed feelings.

“People talked about him, saying Piazzolla destroyed tango. But then I saw him onstage and how he put his personality into his music. Not only was his music very sophisticated and very developed. What made Piazzolla was his personality. That was something huge. You heard his life. That marked me for how I should proceed into the music. It’s not about trying to sound like this person or trying to write like that person. It’s about how you combine all the elements that you learn and the experience that you have with your own personality and how you convey that.”

For del Curto, a fascination with Piazzolla began in his teens while performing traditional tango music in the orchestra of Osvaldo Pugilese. Taken by a performance by Piazzolla’s Sexteto Nuevo Tango, he formed a quartet named after a Piazzolla piece that seemed that sum up the temperament of his new idol and the dramatic musical variations he was designing – Revolucionario.

“Tango was my language, but Piazzolla added his knowledge of jazz and classical. At that age, I was still developing my technique, so there were technical challenges built into his music, as well.”

For the sparse but potently emotive “Oblivion,” one of the Piazzolla works del Curto will play with the Philharmonic, the challenges are established and then pursued on the bandoneon, the concertina-like instrument that has long defined tango.

“The challenge is every time that you play a slow piece, where there are very few notes, that’s when you have to show your personality and your understanding of the music. If you have a lot of notes, you can show your virtuosity but not so much in a slow piece.

“The bandoneon is the main instrument on the piece. It’s not a percussive instrument. You can hold the notes and create different colors. That’s one of the main attractions of a piece like that – all this space that happens between one note and the other to create different emotions. An artist like Astor Piazzolla was able to simplify the music to where only the most important notes made up the piece, but those notes create many colors and many emotions. Nothing is wasted in the notes. Each note is very important and each note can be made beautiful. There are so many possibilities in a piece like this.”

Tonight’s Philharmonic concert won’t be the first time del Curto has performed in Central Kentucky. In 2014, he played Danville as a member of the Pablo Ziegler Quartet. Ziegler was Piazzolla’s pianist during the last decade of the latter’s performance career. Zigeler’s ongoing alliance with del Curto is now in its 26th year, even though the bandoneon artist performs regularly with his own group and released his second album as a bandleader, “Eternal Piazzolla,” in 2013.

“For my instrument, it’s very important to participate in all these different projects. Sometimes, people can be reluctant to include the bandoneon in different kinds of music. But the instrument can blend so well. It has such a unique voice.”

Lexington Philharmonic with Hector del Curto perform at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 10 at the, Singletary Center for the Arts 405 Rose St. Tickets: $25-$75. Call 859-233-4226 or go to lexphil.org

the price sisters catch a break

leanna and lauren price. photo by amy richmond.

It wasn’t an expected way to spend spring break.

With a sizeable quotient of collegiate America setting their sights on sunny Florida, Lauren and Leanna Price had in mind a destination that wasn’t so far down the interstate, although the sense of adventure their journey promised was considerable. The twin siblings, now established professionally as The Price Sisters, devoted their week off to cutting a self-titled seven song EP in Nashville with some of bluegrass music’s most respected names.

“We went down to Nashville for the week, recorded it and released it at the end of August in 2016, which was when we started our senior year of school,” mandolinist/vocalist Lauren said. “Since then, we’ve been thinking about the next album, actually – a full length album that we are ready to record at some point this spring.”

The EP makes for an astonishing listen because its traditional slant, especially evident in the beautifully antique vocal harmonies, suggests an almost sage-like confidence one might not anticipate from a pair of 22 year old college seniors. You hear echoes of the Carter Family within the chestnut “What Does the Deep Sea Say” (the duo has often acknowledged its fondness for Doc Watson’s popular version of the tune), although the singing is just as authentic and authoritative during Marshal Warwick’s waltz-flavored “It’s Happening Again,” the EP’s lone contemporary entry.

“We really started singing – trying to sing harmony, anyway – when we were about 10 or 11,” said fiddler/vocalist Leanna. “Our parents always sang together and knew how to harmonize with each other. A love of music ran through our family from both sides. We could be part of it if dad was singing lead or our mom was singing harmony. Over time, that sound just came to us because it was what we were used to hearing.”

Though the Ohio born sisters’ fascination for bluegrass was a proud product of family environment, what has helped nurture the music they have created on their own was a transfer from Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, West Va. to the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University.

“We were playing a festival in Rosine, Ky. (birthplace of bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe),” Lauren said. “At the time we were students at Davis & Elkins College but ended up stopping in Morehead at the Music Center to practice with a guy who was going to play banjo with us. He turned out to be a student in the program.

“Up to that point, we never really had that feeling you get whenever you visit a school and just know it’s right. But when we walked into the Center, something was really different.”

Part of the school’s spark came from Center director Raymond McLain’s history as part of a long prestigious family ensemble (The McLain Family Band) and his recognition of similar artistic kinship with the Price Sisters.

“We have always loved to sing with each other,” Leanna said, “and everyone at the Center appreciates that. Raymond comes from a family of music so he knows what that’s like. He is totally supportive. He understands we’ve always been together musically and that singing together is really what we like to do the most.”

The Price Sisters’ EP, the duo’s first release for the acclaimed bluegrass label Rebel Records, also sports guest appearances by Ronnie McCoury and Alan Bartram (of The Del McCoury Band and The Travelin’ McCourys), bassist Mike Bub (a McCoury Band alum), Charlie Cushman (The Dukes of Leicester) and Mike Benson (formerly of Special Consensus).

“These are some of the musicians we have looked up to and admired,” Lauren said. “I’ve been listening to Ronnie McCoury’s playing since I was little. But they were so nice to us and so helpful. It was such a treat to hear some of my favorite musicians in the booth next to us recording and then having that come out on our record. It was very cool.”

But will the experience of cutting the Price Sisters’ first full length album prove to be equally cool?

“It’s one of those bittersweet moments in a lot of ways with graduation coming up and things like that,” Lauren said. “But it will also be something really new. It’s a big step, but we’re looking forward to it. I think everything is going to turn out great.”

The Price Sisters perform for Red Barn Radio at ArtsPlace Performance Hall, 161 North Mill at 8 p.m. Feb. 8. Tickets: $8. For more info, go to redbarnradio.com.

critic’s pick – brian eno, ‘reflection’

In a recent posting on his website, Brian Eno confesses he doesn’t understand the contemporary definition of the term “ambient music,” the tag penned to a series of atmospheric instrumental albums he has created over the past three decades exuding sounds that moves in glacial tonal increments rather than through rhythm. It’s no wonder, too, given the music’s appropriation by scores of pop, techno and even dub artists during the generation that followed such early Eno moodpiece experiments as “Discreet Music” (1975) and “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” (1978).

Even Eno himself has sought to find new placement and purpose for his soundscapes. On “The Ship,” an Eno album released as recently as last spring, he used his ambient prototypes as a backdrop for vocal meditations, a few dissonant eruptions and even a slice of majestically reinvented pop (via his version of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free”).

On “Reflection,” the focus falls back on the ambient sound that started it all. The record is a single, 51 minute composition, an instrumental tone poem of sorts that glides with patience and grace. Through the music’s slo-mo unveiling, a few variances appear and contract like a fragment of melody that washes in at low tide only to be eventually pulled back out to sea. Sometimes, a suggestion of a pulse is detected, but the echo is distant – a call from an outside land the music seems to have purposely drifted away from. In other instances, the sense of contemplation is underscored by a few modest accents – a chant-like like accent that briefly mimics birdsong here, the chill of what sounds like vibraphone there. But given the album’s processed sound and its lack of detailed liner notes, you can seldom tell what the specific instrumental voice is.

There is also something of a paradox within the music. It begins fully realized as a gentle swirl of mock-percussive effects connect like wind chimes before the music quickly evolves into an unhurried sonic wash of humming keyboard orchestration that revels in its state of subtlety. Not so with the ending. While “Reflection” wastes no time in lifting off, it takes a beauteous eternity to bid adieu. It’s slow (as in, very slow) fade seems to suggest that it has every intention on lingering on even as it eventually disappears from our rear view mirror.

This is not music for everyone. Many dismissed the minimalist dissension of Eno’s ambient work back in the ‘70s as a crashing bore, a music that sounds more like muzak, only more static. But for those ears favoring a sense of impressionistic introspection – or for anyone simply seeking 51 minutes of glorious peace and quiet – “Reflection” is a fascinating one way trip to the heart of Eno’s ambient cosmos.

john wetton, 1949-2017

john wetton.

Forgive the nostalgia showing, but hearing any recording featuring John Wetton shoots me back to the ‘70s. He wasn’t any kind of generational pop star back then. That honor would hit him in the next decade. But for the better part of the ‘70s, Wetton was prog rock’s prime utility man. He was a mercenary bass guitarist who purposely shunned the spotlight during brief touring tenures with Roxy Music and Uriah Heep but found a comfortable role as front man with the all-star quartet (and, later, trio) U.K. And for those who grew up in the golden age on MTV, he was the vocalist for the more overtly radio friendly ‘80s music generated by a pack of more commercial conscious prog vets known as Asia.

By my preference remains the mountain of wondrous music Wetton cut in a scant two years as a member of King Crimson. As a vocalist, he was as recognizable as he was distinctive. His warm but modestly coarse wail was complimentary to any mood piece the 1972-74 era Crimson would serve up, from demonstrative rock adventures like “Easy Money” and “The Great Deceiver” to epic funereal mood pieces like “Starless.” That voice was what would later launch Asia to such brief charttopping heights, but it was only part of what made Wetton such a versed artist.

The rest dealt with his musicianship, which went largely unheralded through the years. Sample the bounty of concert material Crimson has issued from those years – 1975’s “USA” and 1997’s “The Night Watch” being the most readily obtainable (although the band’s website has a ton of wickedly inventive 1973 and 1974-era live recordings for purchase) – and you will hear a monster improviser at work. Guitarist Robert Fripp, drummer Bill Bruford and violinist David Cross were featured more prominently, but the way Wetton detonated huge, fuzzy bass patterns around their playing was the crowning touch in what remains Crimson’s most daring and rewarding improvisational lineup.

By all written accounts one of rock music’s genuine nice guys, Wetton died yesterday at age 67 following a battle with colon cancer. Want a crash course in the beauty of his vocal chops and instrumental smarts? Then take a listen to Wetton’s final studio album with King Crimson, 1974’s “Red.” The trip gets a little dark at times, but the sights and sounds are sublime.

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